Playwright Tanya Ronder sheds light on the experience of reworking her 2007 adaptation of Vernon God Little, the Booker Prize-winning novel by DBC Pierre, for the Young Vic’s fortieth anniversary season.
When the idea was proposed of redoing Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, it took precisely one second to be 150% behind the idea. The whole creative team and cast had fallen in love with the project the first time round. As a book it has everything – grotesquely funny characters, an insane but almost believable plot, and a beating heart at the centre of it, born from such depth and emotional intelligence, it’s startling. The politics, the philosophy, the comment on our current world and the sheer, vivid joy of trying to stage it was a theatrical combination which captivated us all.
So where’s the rub? Delivering, of course, the second time around; stepping up to the block, having worked at all those improvements we ‘knew’ needed to happen at the end of the previous run. As at the end of any run, we came away thinking, ‘Ah, now we understand what it needs…’ ha, ha. So, firstly, I set about reducing it by 10 per cent; I used to cringe throughout the whole first act’s last incarnation, knowing there was too much in there, too many characters, too much plot. The task was to reduce the foliage without cutting off the path of any vital sap.
Then the major, tonal task of the whole piece was to adjust the balance of satire and tragedy – a line which DBC Pierre treads so breathtakingly well in the book. But, we are in Vernon’s head on the page, with him every step of the way, so the appalling horror and loss which underpins it all is never far from us. Trying to reduce the to-audience stuff (another note to self) but upping the emotional stakes was the key challenge. One of the things we had set out to do in the first incarnation, intended until the last minute, was to have the ghost of Jesus, Vernon’s best friend who has just killed all their classmates, on stage. However, we simply didn’t find the right actor back then, and decided to cut our losses and put him on film instead. This time, we started the hunt earlier, and we weren’t going to give up.
The other thing we wanted to do was to celebrate the musical numbers in it even more. We had Country and Western music threaded throughout, but this time we set out to find an entire cast who could sing, so that we could boost every number almost to the level of a musical. Then I wanted to clean-up all the story arcs, make them more archetypal, firm up the back stories, help the audience pick their way through the glorious chaos of characters and places Vernon bounces through.
Result of all these intentions? I have never been so nervous at any first preview. Despite the beautiful final rehearsal-room run, the bar felt higher than ever. It wasn’t as if we’d cocked it up the first time – what were we doing, unpicking it all? Ugh. That first preview felt, to me, less clear, more confusing, less vivid, than it ever had before! But of course my memory was of a highly evolved show from 2007, when the actors had been pacing it up and finding their lights and moments with the great skill and dexterity which they each brought to it. I had to stand back for a few days and let the team do their extraordinary preview work (as well as a bit of re-writing along the way to help clarity…). Several previews later and press night come and gone, I now feel very proud of the work. I’m as in love with it as I ever was, and when there’s an audience full of youngsters in there, the place rocks. I feel unimaginably lucky to have had the chance all over again to paint this distinct canvas with DBC’s extraordinary words and world.Vernon God Little is currently playing to March 12th 2011 at the Young Vic, London. To purchase a copy of the new edition script (£9.99) click here.